The title of this exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town is a riff on Ava Duvernay’s 2019 Netflix series “When They See Us,” about the Central Park Five, a group of Black teenagers who in 1989 were falsely accused of murdering a white jogger, then exonerated 13 years later. Flipping the phrase to “When We See Us,” curators Koyo Kouoh and Tandazani Dhlakama signal an attempt to correct the negative bias through which Black life is seen—and written and spoken about. Across 200 paintings by 156 Black African and diasporic artists, whose works span the early 20th century up through 2022, the show asks a question with aesthetic, philosophical, political, and social implications: How have Blackness and Africanness been depicted?
Taken together, the cast of characters in these paintings is incredibly varied: lovers, healers, heroes, villains, and mystical creatures engage in worship and dancing; running and fighting; reading, lounging, sleeping, and reflecting. On the whole, the show’s framework suggests a sense of positivity attained through pride and self-recognition. Large swaths of the show focus specifically on Black joy: there’s Moke’s 1983 Kin oyé ou Coulier Madiokoko à Matonga, which depicts a group of men and women dancing in a club radiating with dim, rainbow lights, and Joy Labinjo’s Gisting in the Kitchen (2018), in which three women appear to gossip in a cheerful orange room.
Another significant portion of the show highlights contemporary works featuring figures with exaggeratedly black, even jet-black skin, like Kwesi Botchway’s Green Earflip Cap (2020), Zandile Tshabalala’s Conversation (2020), Amoako Boafo’s Teju (2019), and Cinga Samson’s Ibhungane 16 (2020). Tshabalala’s Two Reclining Women is a striking standout: bright-red lipstick and leopard print nightgowns leap off the canvas, showing two women with shaved heads lounging luxuriously on a sofa.
Both the overbearing optimism and focus on skin tone pose problems. One cannot help but wonder about the limits of the show’s optimistic spin in the face of continued anti-Blackness worldwide. In her catalogue essay, Dhlakama quotes writer Kevin Quashie, who laments that “nearly all of what has been written about Blackness assumes that Black culture is, or should be, identified by resistant expressiveness—a response to racial oppression.” Still, she writes that the exhibition was formulated to counter that prevailing sentiment of exploitation and persecution. It’s an understandable impulse, but at times, it feels forced, as if stemming from a need to prove something about Blackness or Africanness.
The exaggeratedly black skin tone can be traced back to artists like Kerry James Marshall and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—but it’s unclear what the new generation is doing to advance or complicate the technique. And it’s important to do so, since its prevalence can play into tropes of easy visibility and representation without always challenging how the Black body is seen. When artists draw such a tight connection between Black life and Black skin, they risk positioning the Black body as a gimmick.
The paintings in the show that depict groups rather than individual figures, especially those by older and historical artists like Gerard Sekoto, George Pemba, Meleko Mokgosi, Fred Oduya, Beauford Delaney, Helen Sebidi, and Maria da Silva, deal more pointedly with social and political issues. Mokgosi’s Pax Kaffraria:Graase-Mans (2014) is a 30-foot-wide triptych that, in combining several scenes, reflects the richness and plurality of Black life. In one scene, a helper cares for a small child as a man cleans his stoop with a bucket and cloth; in another, a man leans back in a chair in what looks like a classroom. The work forms part of Mokgosi’s exploration of transnationality and “Africanness,” paying close attention to Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe as case studies. It reflects on quieter and ordinary moments that make up daily life outside grand narratives about colonialism
and its afterlives.
Uneven as it necessarily is, given its size, “When We See Us” unambiguously succeeds in one respect; it brings lesser-known artists to new audiences: an artwork by self-taught Louisiana painter Clementine Hunter—among the earliest pieces in the show—introduces the artist to viewers on the continent. The task of “When We See Us” is urgent and timely, and it reflects the need to expand the language of Black art and to reassess the limits of figurative painting. It has become too easy to think the art world has transformed and become more diverse simply because we’re seeing more Black faces on the walls at art fairs and in museum and gallery exhibitions. But seeing is not enough, and eye-catching images of Black bodies can shift attention away from pressing social and political issues. Nevertheless, these failures, tensions, and contradictions open the door for generative questioning that will fuel the way forward.